Looking beyond concrete with Jochen Lempert

September 27, 2023

As the final installment of our Beyond Concrete story series, guest editor Brian Sholis reflects on what it is to look beyond the concrete through his engagement with the photographic work of German artist Jochen Lempert.

This summer, we’ve published a series of essays, interviews, and other stories that relate to the themes of Beyond Concrete, a season of programs that explore the urban ecosystems beneath the Gardiner Expressway, where human-made infrastructure intertwines with flora and fauna. As a final installment in this series, guest editor Brian Sholis reflects on what it is to look beyond the concrete through his engagement with the photographic work of German artist Jochen Lempert.

The images that accompany this essay, by German artist Jochen Lempert and taken in cities across the world, contrast with the photographs by Zunaid Khan that we published at the beginning of September. Taken together, they demonstrate the breadth of the category “nature photography” and the ways, both planned and unplanned, that plant and animal species interact with us in urban environments.

Brian Sholis: Before my first encounter with Jochen Lempert’s photographs, at a gallery in Portugal in 2009, I had spent three decades living in large North American cities—growing up, making friends, making a career, making my own fun. I did that without much thought for the environment around me; I saw the places I found myself as fields of social opportunity, backgrounds for the minor human dramas that filled my days.

It is no exaggeration to say that Lempert’s pictures, black-and-white images printed at mostly modest scale and affixed without frames to gallery walls, changed my relationship to the world around me—not least by revealing it to me as a world, one characterized by complexity, interspecies relationships, and a surprising amount of detail. I knew from an early age that there is no place on Earth untouched by human impact. Lempert taught me, first through the example of his art and later through our friendship, that there is no human place unstructured by natural processes and relationships. I learned, too, that nature is not a place or a mix of species but a quality of attention.

Lempert’s attentiveness is informed by his time spent, in the 1980s and early 1990s, as a research scientist doing field work in Africa, Europe, and on the North Sea. He used cameras to document his findings, and to this day he creates his art with relatively basic tools: a 35-mm camera, a fixed-length lens, and black-and-white film. The resulting images, with visible grain and a palette of softly shaded grays, have an idiosyncratic beauty. Their quietness belies the radically broad definition of “nature” that drives him: not only does he photograph flora and fauna in Hamburg, where he lives, and the other places he visits, but also specimens in museum storage cabinets, representations in paintings and other artworks, and even images found online. Such catholicism is bracing.

Vanessa atalanta Migration, 2014

I remain, nearly a decade after first seeing it, most struck by his picture Vanessa atalanta migration (2014), included in this portfolio. It is a slightly vertiginous urban scene: two rows of parked cars, some fencing around a small street-repair project, and residential buildings, all tilted off-axis and slightly out of focus. It takes a moment to register the butterfly perfectly centered in the composition, its orientation making it seem like another vehicle moving along the street. It took several kinds of observation for Lempert to make this picture, which was shot out of his studio window: first, to see and react quickly enough to capture the image, and second, to identify the species and recognize its presence in Hamburg as part of a broader migration.

When I asked Lempert for photographs to present here as part of Beyond Concrete, I was surprised to see Vanessa atalanta migration II (2019). I had not known there was a second butterfly picture, though perhaps I should have, given Lempert’s penchant for doubles, evidenced here by multiple pictures of flying insects and by his shots of crows on both sides of the Pacific. This picture, so different from the first, testifies both to Lempert’s persistent looking and to the cycles that characterize natural processes, even the ones occurring in the densest urban environments. Lempert’s photographs, like the artistic projects included in The Bentway’s season exhibition Beyond Concrete, attune us to these cycles, to all that flourishes alongside us in the city.